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Gen. Goldfein strengthens partnerships, gains valuable insights during visits to Estonia, Finland

  • Published
  • By Charles Pope
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

As he does almost every time he travels abroad, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein emphasized the mutual value – and modern day necessity – of strong, seamless partnerships during stops in Estonia and Finland July 13-15.

His three-day visit to the two Northern European nations was also notable because it offered Goldfein and other senior U.S. leaders valuable opportunities to learn from Estonia about cyber operations and from Finland about its approach to expeditionary operations and agile basing, training and homeland defense.

All are high priorities for Goldfein and few countries are more experienced in each as Estonia and Finland. Each also shares a border – and a history – with Russia. One is a NATO member – Estonia – and one is not but has historically tight connections with the United States and the U.S. Air Force. Finland, for example, participated in Red Flag Alaska in 2018.

“I wanted to get a good sense of what they’re thinking, how they’re dealing with living right there on the border,” Goldfein said about his first visit to Estonia. He also was visiting Finland for the first time.

“It’s also why I came into Finland because they are right there with a large border with Russia. How are they thinking about this? What can we learn? How can we partner? All of that was part of the discussion.”

The discussions at both stops touched on long-range issues that Goldfein and the U.S. Air Force are working and others that are near-term and very current.

The U.S. Air Force is in the process of forming a separate, “numbered” Air Force focusing on cyber issues, an action that highlights the emphasis that both the service and the Department of Defense place on cyber aspects of national security.

“Estonia was (cyber) attacked in 2007 so they’ve got scar tissue,” Goldfein said in explaining why the U.S. is so interested in learning from Estonia. “Nothing gets you more serious about cyber defense than having been attacked. So I think they’re probably as far ahead anyone I’ve seen in their ability to defend themselves.”

That denial of service attack, which was linked to Russia, paralyzed much of the nation. Banks could not operate and ATMs were largely useless; media sites, including TV and newspapers went dark; government websites were snarled; internet service was essentially shut down for the entire nation.

In response, Estonia developed a reputation for taking steps to identify and stop attacks. It is a key member of NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, which was formed in 2008 largely in response to the incident in Estonia. The Centre, which is based in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, has 25 members including the U.S. The Centre is described as a think-tank operation that develops policies and ideas on a range of important cyber issues. Goldfein also met with the leader of Estonia’s cyber command.

“So I met both the operational commander and the leader of the center of excellence. Those discussions were really good,” he said. “As we work to stand up this information warfare numbered Air Force that’s a connection I want to make sure we establish.”

While formal arrangement are yet to be developed, possible collaborations include officer exchanges, joint cyber exercises and other efforts that enhance cyber defense, “hygiene,” and activities that are central to effectively protecting national security.

Goldfein has emphasized the need to instill a more agile expeditionary footing--that concept was a major element of his keynote address last September at the Air Force Association meeting. During his two days in Finland Goldfein got a first-hand look at the Finnish approach as he rode in the backseat of a Finnish F-18 for a training flight July 14. The flight originated from Kuopio Air Base, which is less than 100 miles from the Russian border. Goldfein is aware of the Finnish Air Force’s rich and impressive history, but taking part of a defensive counter-air mission offered insights that “you wouldn’t get from a PowerPoint,” said Col. Juha-Pekka Keranen, the service’s deputy chief of staff.

“He is getting a view on how we operate. Now he can see with his own eyes and hear the discussion,” he said. “That’s the main point.”

After the flight, Goldfein echoed that observation and said it confirmed his impression of how the Finnish Air Force operates.

“This really reinforced what I’ve heard before--that Finland is as good as anybody we’ve flown with; just exceptional quality. And that came through loud and clear during the flight and during the whole two days we spent here,” said Goldfein, who became the first Air Force chief of staff to fly along with the Finnish Air Force.

“From the brief to the execution to the debrief, I could have been at Nellis Air Force Base (Nevada) with any one of our F-18, F-16, F-35, F-22 pilots and I couldn’t tell the difference,” he said.

That distinction is no small matter. The same day as the training flight but to the south over the Gulf of Finland and Baltic Sea, Finnish aircraft scrambled in response to the presence of Russian aircraft--including a bomber, early warning aircraft and fighter--in international airspace. At various times Sweden and Denmark also responded. A spokesman for the Finnish Air Force said the country’s airspace was not violated and the training mission that included Goldfein was not involved.

Beyond the flight, Goldfein said he had productive conversations with Finnish Air Chief, Maj. Gen. Pasi Jokinen, about space, about the country’s approach for training pilots and about the new security environment in which they operate. He said he was interested in finding ways to ensure maximum effect when the U.S. and Finland work together.

“When we add the United States Air Force…we bring a lot of mass, a lot of capability…with the Finnish Air Force…small, exquisite, very capable—what does that equal when we’re added together?” he said. “We talked a lot about exercising to continue looking at different ways to partner going forward.”

Like his counterpart in Estonia, Jokinen said in an interview that Russia’s taking over Crimea from the Ukraine in 2014 was a “turning point” that created a “new normal.”

Goldfein said discussions about Crimea confirmed that. “It sowed huge seeds of distrust in each country between them and Russia. They take the threat very seriously and their interest in partnering with us is incredibly important to them.”